Let’s digress, today, and talk about a videogame.
Okay, so it’s not much of digression for some of you lot. But me, I play maybe two or three games per annum. Four, in a bumper year. Five—if something wild and strange has happened, maybe.
At the time of writing, I’ve spent much of the past four days sleeping and playing Dishonored. And I want to look at it in a limited way from a feminist viewpoint: not necessarily a theoretically advanced viewpoint, but my own experience of playing it.
You are Corvo Attano, the once-trusted bodyguard of the Empress. Framed for her murder and empowered with supernatural abilities, you become an assassin to seek revenge on those who ruined your life. The choices you make will shape your fate and that of the empire around you.
That’s what the box copy says. Ever since I played Metal Gear Solid for the old Playstation, I’ve had a terrible fondness for stealth games. Murder! In the dark! Outwitting the enemy in secret! But I like RPGs much better, and as a consequence in the last five years—with the exception of last year’s X-COM: Enemy Unknown and a couple of the SOCOM games—you can pretty much imagine what I’ve played. The Mass Effect series. Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim.
And I guess they’ve spoiled me, in terms of being narratively acknowledged. To me, Dishonored is more an interesting failure, one whose failings annoy me more the more I think on them.
Before I unpack what I mean by that, let me tell you what Dishonored did right by me. The world-building, in terms of mood and detail, is rich and atmospheric: the city of Dunwall, where the game is set, is a port city in the grip of a devastating plague. Graffiti, rats, dead bodies and decay, battered buildings, gaslamp-style science-magic, a fascistically omnipresent security apparatus, and a shocking amount of corruption. The mechanics of creeping around and disposing of your enemies by stealth are well done and mostly intuitive, and you can collect supernatural powers—like teleportation, stopping time, and possessing other creatures—following your first encounter with the slightly creepy being known as the Outsider.
Narratively, it’s fairly predictable. Some of the decisions made by the greater narrative were obvious from very early on. One Big Twist—that your allies are using you for their own ends and will end up betraying you—is fairly obvious from the get-go to anyone who’s ever read a spy thriller. But there’s no way to get the drop on those allies, even if you see the betrayal coming. Choices in-game are limited largely to performing the missions with minimum chaos or maximum bloodshed. This affects endgame results. (Save the child-empress and the city/cause everything to go to hell in a handbasket: these are the opposing poles of the outcomes.)
As failings go, that’s a fairly minor one. No game can be all things to all people, and that I wanted the narrative lability of an RPG when that’s not Dishonored’s goal in life is on me. But its alienating choices with regard to gender and race? Those are on it.
Let’s start with the first thing that irritated me in its thoughtlessness. The thing is, in Dishonored, you never see your own character’s face. Corvo never appears on-screen, except in a couple of still-shot endgame frames. So what’s the reason to gender that character? You could write all the incidental dialogue without gendered pronouns—it might not be trivially easy to make it sound entirely natural, but it’s certainly within the realm of the practical.
The second thing I noticed: Dunwall, although explicitly characterised as a port city and the heart of an empire, is populated only by the whitest of white people. Do I have to point out why this is alienating and wrong, or can we all agree that port cities, even plague-ridden ones, can be expected to present a wider palette of humanity?
Which brings us to item the third: presenting and portraying female characters. Women appear in Dishonored in the following roles:
- one dead empress
- one prepubescent child heir
- one witch, alignment (apparently) chaotic evil
- a handful of harmless survivors hiding in sewers
- aimless corrupt nobility at a masked ball
- the Lord Regent’s lover, described to your character in terms of her arse and not her political importance.
Men can be admirals, scientists, thugs and gangleaders, noblemen scheming for advantage, religious leaders, assassin-chiefs, random useful NPCs—the decisions of men move the game’s narrative arc. Women are pieces on the board.
Is it really so much to ask, in a game set explicitly in a port city, that the characters not be ALL SO WHITE? That some of the chief schemers and powerful movers-and-shakers be not ALL SO MALE?
I complained about this to Twitter. As a result, I was pointed at this article from The Mary Sue. In it, writer Becky Chambers advances the thesis that Dishonored made an active, fully-thought-out choice in depicting a society with retrogressive gender roles.
“The fact that the game points out inequality shows that it’s not complicit in it. It wants you to think about it. It wants you to know that such things aren’t right.”
Unfortunately for my willingness to agree with Chambers’ point, Dishonored is fairly subtle in how it points out the unfairness/misery/unpleasantness of discriminatory gender roles. In fact, if you weren’t already thinking about gender roles, you might not even notice the subtle points—
At one stage in my playthrough, I came across one of Corvo’s allies peering through a keyhole, while on the other side a woman was taking a bath. It did not occur to me until later—much later, in fact—that Corvo could’ve peered through that keyhole too, since looking through keyholes is a key part of all the sneaking. Had I chosen to look, would I have been rewarded with a view of an unaware woman who had not consented to be looked on in her nakedness? I don’t know—I don’t want to know—and thinking about the possibility makes my stomach turn over with disgust. The mere fact that one of Corvo’s allies is a peeping Tom and the game would not let me kill him at that point in time....
Elizabeth Bear wrote recently:
“I do not actually think those jokes were intended to hurt me. I think they were intended to be funny.
And yet, they left me feeling like a bad person. They left me lying awake at night, wondering why people hated me because I happen to be female.
...And they don’t realize that they are alienating me. A human being. Somebody who will lie awake at night wondering why they hate her.”
That? That sentiment describes how I feel about that moment in the game. It makes me want to say to Chambers’ defence of the game’s choices with: I respect your point of view. But.
Gender-based discrimination is unfair, and unethical, and wrong. (And any argument about the game’s choices with regard to gender leave out its choices on race.) But. But. I don’t need the social disabilities* of my gender slapped in my face in a gaslamp fantasy stealth-assassination game. I don’t want to be thinking about how my options were limited from my birth by social constructions of gender: how I can look at a slate of political candidates and find so few women, look at a list of members of a corporate board and find so very few women; look at the upper echelons of the civil service and see that women are still outnumbered there.
And if you do shove a society where gender-based discrimination is the norm in front of me in the name of entertainment, then I bloody well want more range: noblewomen scheming to control their children’s fortunes, courtesans getting in and out of the trade, struggling merchants’ widows on the edge of collapse and still getting by: more women-as-active-participants, less women-as-passive-sufferers. I would say this sort of thing annoys me, but really that’s the wrong word: it both infuriates and wearies me at the same time. I’m tired of needing to be angry.
It’s a massive failure at the heart of a game that’s smart about all kinds of things—but only as long as white men are the whole of the foreground.
Only that long.